Marseille Reinvents Itself as Digital Media Hub

French Mediterranean port is developing technology infrastructure and encouraging film and television production

marseille digital hub

Ever since the 1971 release of William Friedkin’s “The French Connection,” which filmed many scenes in Marseille, the Mediterranean city has been vaguely associated with drugs, crime, and urban decay.

But that is ending. The Marseille of today — Europe’s second-largest port and France’s second-largest metropolis — is a bustling, energetic crossroads of people and cultures.

And the city council is coordinating a digital strategy, under the banner of the Aix-Marseille French Tech initiative, to rebrand itself as a “smart” city.

“Over the last 10 years Marseille has transformed its image, and digital media has played a key in this process,” says Didier Parakian, deputy to the mayor in charge of economic development. Events such as European Capital of Culture in 2013, and the European Capital of Sports, set for 2017, have also helped.

The local digital value chain generated €8 billion ($9 billion) in 2015, and Parakian forecasts that this turnover will double over the next five years.

A huge “Marseille” sign, erected by Netflix, graces the hills overlooking the Mediterranean, conjuring up visual parallels with Los Angeles, an idea echoed by various industry professionals.

“Marseille is really inspiring. It’s chaotic, very cosmopolitan, outward looking and has a fascinating ethnic mix,” says Jean-Laurent Csinidis, manager of Films de Force Majeure.

Given its geo-strategic position, Marseille is also one of Europe’s biggest data gateways, with ultra-fast undersea cables to Africa and Asia. It now hosts eight international data centers.

Marseille Memo
The city in the South of France is joining the ranks of world-class media hubs.
$9b Total value of digital activity generated in the Marseille region in 2015
30% Film tax rebate as of 2016, hiked from 20% in 2015, encouraging more shoots
229 Feature film shooting days in 2015, up from 127 in 2014
826 TV series shooting days in 2015, up from 422 in 2014

The city is the cornerstone of the new Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropolis, an administrative unit formed in January, and is developing synergies that aim to position the zone as a new Silicon Valley.

Film production in Marseille and in the surrounding Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region — France’s second-biggest filming location after the Paris region — has been steadily growing. It was further powered in 2016 by the tax rebate rate hike from 20% to 30%.

In the Marseille region alone, the number of shooting days for films and TV series nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, increasing from 127 to 229 days for features and from 422 to 826 days for series.

Major international productions recently lensing in the municipality include Antonio Negret’s French action thriller “Overdrive,” starring Scott Eastwood, and Chinese TV series “Family on the Go.”

Marseille’s Mission Cinema, launched in 2009, assists in location scouting and film permits, and coordinates municipal investments in local production facilities, including the Belle de Mai Media Park.

“We don’t wait, we prospect. We’re pro-active,” says Séréna Zouaghi, the councilor in charge of the Mission Cinema. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region is committed to building a regional digital cluster, pioneered by Primi, a hub of business and professional orgs set up in 2011 and headed by Ilan Ulloz. Local producers are generating projects that will further consolidate the city’s position as a source of creative content.

“Until the digital revolution, Marseille was never seen as a serious alternative to Paris,” says Lionel Payet, CEO of Planete Rouge. “Digital is offering new models. A company can be a viable alternative here and attract international clients.”

“Our strategy is to coordinate all the projects in the region on a complementary rather than a competitive basis,” says Ulloz. “We’re advancing quickly and transforming the region into a creative cluster that can welcome projects from around the world.”

A Powerful Film Hub Emerges

Marseille has significantly reinforced its studio offerings over the past two years, with ambitious plans for the near future.

“We have all the ingredients to host major international productions,” says Primi director Ilan Ulloz. “But many film professionals are still unaware of our strengths in terms of studio facilities, exterior locations, and crew depth.”

Studio space has been expanding to meet rising demand, including four soundstages and a new visual effects studio in the Belle de Mai Media Park; and Provence Studios, near Marseille, with a 280,000-sq.-ft.-covered area, and 54 acres of backlot. Nice-based Studios Riviera has a further 10 soundstages.

Studio Post & Prod’s new vfx motion capture shop, managed by Marianne Carpentier, is developing two ambitious series with Dark Euphoria.

According to deputy mayor Didier Parakian, the council also plans to build a backlot near the Belle de Mai Media Park, expected for 2017, and plans to build an additional two studios in Marseille.

Olivier Marchetti, owner of Provence Studios, also has major expansion plans. This month, a 29,000-sq.-ft. soundstage will be completed that will host an undisclosed major French movie, and an additional 20,000-sq.-ft. soundstage will be available in 2017. The 52-acre backlot is being remodeled, and in the medium term Provence Studios plans to build large-scale water tanks next to the Mediterranean.

“We’re convinced that there’s tremendous potential for reinforcing film and TV shoots in the South of France,” Marchetti says. “We can offer everything, in terms of studio facilities, technicians, auxiliary services, spectacular locations, plentiful sunshine, luxury hotels, and the overall allure of the Mediterranean.”